The water is a huge draw year-round for Minnesotans and Wisconsinites. While many may be inclined to stay indoors and avoid the cold, a hobby like ice fishing invites a new layer of fun to the wintertime. Plus, it’s a versatile hobby that can be as relaxed or as competitive as you make it, and you can fish solo or make it a social event with friends and family.
From important seasonal dates to specific fishing tips, here is everything you need to know before you head out on your next ice fishing trip on lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Whether you’re already a pro fisher or you’re in the market for a new winter hobby, visit the best ice fishing lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin to experience everything their lakes have to offer.
Ice fishing season: When is the best time to go?
Living in a chilly climate provides an entire season of winter fishing. Throughout the wintry months, typically between December and March, frozen lakes can be fished. However, ice conditions differ every year, and they influence the safety, enjoyment and results of ice fishing.
Additionally, you may have better luck catching certain fish during specific times of the year. For example, walleye and northern pike tend to be active at the beginning of ice fishing season, whereas fishers may have better luck with Saugers later in the season. More information on the best time to go ice fishing in Minnesota — and catch specific fish — can be found here.
When does ice fishing start?
The ice fishing season typically begins in December. With that being said, shifting and melting ice can create safety concerns. It’s important to stay current with ice conditions every time you fish.
When is the last day of ice fishing season?
Ice fishing season usually ends in March. However, the exact date varies by location and ice conditions. Lakes in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin tend to remain safe for ice fishing for a few weeks longer than those in the southern parts of each state.
13 best ice fishing lakes in Minnesota and western Wisconsin
In Minnesota, northern waters offer a more rural experience and deeper water, whereas the southern and Twin Cities metro lakes may be more accessible for a quick ice fishing trip. Additionally, fishers may have the opportunity to catch larger fish in northern lakes, thanks to the geography of the area. Individuals fishing in central to southern areas may find themselves catching a variety of smaller panfish.
In western Wisconsin, you’ll be shouting “flag up!” and watching everything from panfish to sturgeon and walleye by heading south to the La Crosse area or north to Hayward.
If you’re asking where is the best ice fishing near me?, we have you covered. These are the 13 best ice fishing lakes to explore in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Best northern Minnesota ice fishing lakes
- Lake Winnibigoshish
- Upper Red Lake
- Lake Vermillion
- Lake Bemidji
- Zippel Bay
Best central Minnesota ice fishing lakes
- Oak Lake
Best southern Minnesota ice fishing lakes
- Lake Pepin
Twin Cities / Minneapolis and St. Paul ice fishing lakes
- Lake Elmo
- Lake Harriet
- Lake Phalen
Best northwestern Wisconsin ice fishing lakes
- Dairyland Reservoir
- Nelson Lake
Best west central Wisconsin ice fishing lakes
- Lake Onalaska
Best lakes for ice fishing in northern Minnesota
- Located on the Leech Lake Reservation
- Popular for walleye, northern pike and perch
Lake Winnibigoshish is the fifth largest lake in the state. The expansive lake reaches depths of 78 feet. Within an hour drive of the lake, fishers enjoy communities such as Bemidji, Cass Lake, and Grand Rapids. These towns host a variety of tourist and family-oriented activities, including historical sites, movie theaters, restaurants, casinos, gift shops and more.
A handful of lodging options are available near Lake Winnibigoshish, including Becker’s Resort, Four Seasons Resort and McArdle’s Resort. If you’re trekking to Lake Winnibigoshish from afar, book a weekend trip to reconnect with nature and relax in northern Minnesota.
Upper Red Lake
- Located on the Red Lake Reservation, near Kelliher
- Popular for walleye, northern pike and crappie
Upper Red Lake is one of the best ice fishing destinations in northern Minnesota, especially for those interested in catching walleye. Although Upper Red Lake is a relatively large body of water, it only reaches a maximum depth of 15 feet. The shallow structure of the lake, combined with a sand and mud bottom, create an accessible fishing experience where almost everyone is guaranteed a catch.
Looking to book a stay in the Upper Red Lake? Beacon Harbor Resort, Big Bog State Recreation Area and West Wind Resort are great options in the area. Additionally, Red Lake Ice Fishing Rentals and Resort offers sleeper ice house rentals, which allow you to experience ice fishing at its finest and to its fullest!
- Located in Cook and Tower, Minnesota
- Popular for walleye, northern pike, perch and crappie
Lake Vermilion is named after the French translation of Onamuni, an Ojibwe word that translates to“lake of the sunset glow.” This beautiful lake is popular for fishing and other nearby attractions, including the Bois Forte Heritage Center, Fortune Bay Casino and the Howard Wagoner Ski Trail Center.
- Located in Bemidji, Minnesota
- Popular for walleye, perch, crappie and bass
Lake Bemidji is a favorite destination for fishing families across the state. It’s also home to many local restaurants and boutiques. Throughout the snowy winter, the area has plenty of character and feels like a cozy village.
Make a complete trip out of your fishing plans on Lake Bemidji. Lodging ranges from well-known hotels to quaint lodges. To book your stay, check out Visit Bemidji’s roundup of lodging options.
- Located in Williams, Minnesota
- Popular for walleye, northern pike, perch and sauger
Be sure to make a northern Minnesota ice fishing trip to Zippel Bay, one of the best walleye ice fishing lakes in Minnesota. In addition to being an ice fishing hot spot, Zippel Bay State Park in Williams is home to year-round recreation like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and more.
A big draw to the area is the Igloo Bar, a bar located on the ice of Zippel Bay. Simply drive on the marked ice road to the ice bar, and you’re bound to have a fun time. Book a stay near Zippel Bay at Zippel Bay Resort, Lyon Sleepers or Sportsman’s Lodges.
Best lakes for ice fishing in central Minnesota
- Located in Kerrick Township
- Popular for walleye, northern pike and perch
Oak Lake is a popular ice fishing destination situated in the middle of the state. Whether you’re interested in a daylong fishing trip or you’re planning to head farther north, stop to ice fish on Oak Lake. Planning to stay for the weekend or overnight? Check out nearby accommodations such as the Moose Lake Lodge and Suites and Oak Lake Campground, and be sure to head to Pine City for shopping and dining.
Best lakes for ice fishing in southern Minnesota
- Located in Frontenac, Minnesota
- Popular for walleye, northern pike and crappie
Situated on the Mississippi River between Minnesota and Wisconsin, Lake Pepin’s vast span is dotted with dozens of ice fishing hot spots. Along with fishing, the 26-mile stretch of community around Lake Pepin is filled with incredible eateries and shopping destinations. Additional draws are the local Cheese Factory and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historical Museum.
Whether you plan a quick day trip to Lake Pepin or stay for the weekend, you’re bound to catch fish and have plenty to explore in Frontenac. If booking a stay, be sure to check out John Hall’s Alaska Lodge, Camp Lacupolis or head to nearby Red Wing additional overnight options, shopping and dining.
Best lakes for ice fishing near the Twin Cities
- Located in Lake Elmo, Minnesota
- Popular for northern pike, perch and bluegill
Just a short drive from the metro area, Lake Elmo offers a rural appearance and wonderful fishing experience. Visitors are likely to catch northern pike along with a range of panfish. The area is also known for the Lake Elmo Park Reserve, and is close enough for most visitors to ice fish near Minneapolis.
- Located in Minneapolis, MN
- Popular for walleye, perch and crappie
Located in the metro, Lake Harriet is a great ice fishing lake near Minneapolis. This lake is accessible to many nearby residents and it offers a variety of family-friendly winter events. Whether you’re interested in ice fishing, winter markets, nearby ice skating or snowshoeing, Lake Harriet is the ideal destination. After you complete your fishing, head into Linden Hills Village to warm up with a cup of coffee, lunch or some light shopping.
- Located in St. Paul, Minnesota
- Popular for northern pike, perch and crappie
This popular lake holds a variety of fish and is a top choice for metro area fishers. The nearby Phalen Regional Park features a hockey rink, skating rink and cross country ski trail for everyone to enjoy after ice fishing.
Whether you live nearby and can make a day trip or you’re visiting the area for the weekend, Lake Phalen is a great destination for fishers and other outdoor lovers.
Best lakes for ice fishing in northwestern Wisconsin
- Located in Rusk County, Wisconsin
- Popular for panfish and walleye, with potential for bass, pike and sturgeon
Get ready to yell, “Flag up!” if you head to the Dairyland Reservoir, an 1,800-acre waterway located on the Flambeau River. The reservoir, also known as the Dairyland Flowage, is ranked one of the top spots for catching the most fish per hour in the state.
- Located just north of Hayward, Wisconsin
- Popular for bluegills and crappies
Ice fishing novices might want to head to Nelson Lake, a popular flowage known for its abundance of panfish. Game and Fishing Magazine has noted that technology like fish finders don’t seem to help fishers on this northwestern lake all that much; instead, the best bet to reel in more bluegills or crappies is to keep changing up your bait until you find one that gets them biting.
Best lakes for ice fishing in west central Wisconsin
- Located in La Crosse County, Wisconsin
- Popular for largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, northern pike and walleye
Ice fishing enthusiasts shouldn’t overlook Lake Onalaska, an 8,400-acre reservoir located on the Black River and Mississippi River between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Anglers who also wish to do some shopping, dining or other non-fishing activities can head to nearby La Crosse for small-town fun.
If you’re looking for an overnight stay, consider Clearwater Cabins or one of the many properties listed on direct rental sites like VRBO or Airbnb.
More tips and advice for ice fishing in Minnesota and Wisconsin
Although similar to summer fishing, ice fishing does have a unique set of safety considerations and tools you’ll need to pick up. If you’re in the market to ice fish this winter, here are some common questions along with their answers.
How thick does the ice need to be for ice fishing to be safe?
Safety is of utmost importance while ice fishing. To be safe, ice must reach a certain level of thickness before it can be traversed to fish. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recommends the following ice thickness guidelines for new, clear ice:
- Under 4”: Stay off
- 4”: Ice fishing on foot
- 4”–7”: Snowmobile or ATV
- 8”-12”: Car or small pickup
- 12”-15”: Medium truck
Fresh ice is stronger than white ice or “snow ice.” If the ice is not newly formed, it is necessary to double the above thickness guidelines. Follow these ice tips from the DNR to learn more about ice guidelines or to check ice thickness.
Driving on the ice
When it comes to driving on the ice, there are additional considerations to keep in mind. In addition to ensuring ice thickness, you’ll want to follow these recommendations:
- Cars should be parked at least 50 feet apart
- Vehicles should be moved every two hours
- Drive slowly (typically under 25 mph)
- Drive with windows rolled down
What do I need for gear and clothing?
When ice fishing, you’ll want to keep warm in all of your typical winter outdoor gear. In addition to the standard jacket and boots, you’ll also want some gear specific to ice fishing. This list is a great starting place when determining what gear you need to ice fish:
- Fishing rod, reel, line, lures and bait
- Ice auger
- Ice fishing scoop
- Ice picks
- Ice shelter
Taking shelter in ice houses
You can find a variety of ice fishing shelters on the market, including:
- Pop-up ice fishing tent
- Flip style shelter
- Portable ice cabins
- Aluminum fish house
- Travel trailer
When choosing which ice house is best for you, be sure to think about ice shelter licensing and identification requirements in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Explore the best cities for ice fishing with Edina Realty
Now that you’ve located where to ice fish in Minnesota and Wisconsin, it’s time to decide which area you’d like to call home. Whether you’re moving forward with a new home purchase or sale, contact Edina Realty or your agent. We will help match you with the perfect REALTOR® to find your dream house.